Grassroots district group weaves refugees into local community

“Local, low-key, grassroots” – these are the watchwords of a Hungarian community foundation that seeks to include all foreigners, including refugees, in its activities

Ferencvaros Community Foundation (FCF) cares about everyone who lives in Budapest’s ninth district, and that includes foreigners of all kinds, among them refugees.

“The ninth district has always been diverse,” says Orsolya Polyacskó, project coordinator at FCF. “Historically, there were Germans, foreign tradesmen… Our lived reality is a multicultural environment, and always has been.”

FCF, a non-government organisation, supports a wide range of community initiatives from cultural to charitable causes.

“Politics and propaganda is one thing but on a local level, if your neighbour is a refugee or migrant, there is no problem.”

“We are also reaching out to foreigners connected with the district,” says Orsolya. “Politics and propaganda is one thing but on a local level, if your neighbour is a refugee or migrant, there is no problem.”

Local, low-key, grassroots – these are the watchwords of Hungary’s first community foundation, which is showing that small district groups can make a difference for refugees even when national policies favour security over inclusion.

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“Any type of handicraft is relaxing and we ladies come together, laughing and joking. It’s a good chance to get to know each other,” says Sarah Nakigudde, instructor of the basket weaving course © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

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We are reaching out to foreigners connected with the district, trying to find out who they are, what they face, how they might like to be included, says Orsolya Polyacskó © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

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The baskets are nice and useful, but the activities are more about the community © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

“We want to involve refugees and migrants in our activities,” says Orsolya, “so we have been trying to find out who they are, what they face, how they might like to be included.”

After meeting over 30 foreigners, Orsolya found that many were thinking of others as much as themselves and wanted to take part in community charitable events. “For example one man, a Moroccan, joined our Swimathon to raise money for local needs,” she says.

The Hungarian government has recently introduced new taxes on those helping migrants, a measure that has made some NGOs nervous. FCF has always worked within the law and intends to continue doing so, supporting a local community that happens to include legally accepted migrants and refugees.

FCF organised a community festival on colourful Raday Street, involving residents, theatres, galleries and schools, as well as businesses run by Hungarians and foreigners. Also, at the Central Market, it put on an exhibition of photos of objects that refugees and migrants brought with them to Hungary – a coffee pot from Syria; a necklace from Iraq.

“Through craft, we are making friends and building a community”

FCF has been supporting a modest local group called MigHelp that runs language and vocational courses for locals and migrants and refugees with legal status. The aim is to facilitate their social inclusion and help prepare them for the job market.

One of MigHelp’s most popular courses is a basket weaving workshop for vulnerable women. “Through craft, we are making friends and building a community,” says MigHelp spokeswoman Linda Carranza, originally from the USA.

The basket weaving class is taught by Sarah Nakigudde, originally from Uganda. She has been in Hungary for nine years.

“I learnt basket weaving from my mother,” she says. “She was doing it as a business while I was attracted by the colours. By the age of 11, I could produce my own standing basket. We used banana stalks and sisal. Sisal sucks water from the ground, so in Africa basket making is both decorative and a way of saving the land.”

Sarah’s students love the course. “Basket weaving is relaxing,” says Mary Mozafary, a lawyer from Kabul who came to Hungary alone in 2014 and now has refugee status.

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"We learn about our home countries and about Hungary as well" © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

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Sarah learned her skills from her mother. Now she's proud to pass them on to women of different cultures © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

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Orsolya loves the colorful, multicultural vibe of the district © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

“Any type of handicraft is relaxing and we ladies come together, laughing and joking. It’s a good chance to get to know each other.”

MigHelp’s basket weaving workshop was one project that FCF supported when it held a fundraising event in a posh hotel in the ninth district. (Other projects included a music studio for troubled local teenagers and a foundation that helps students from poor backgrounds to aim for university.)

In the audience were well-heeled people with a social conscience. “I pay tax, and I regard giving to charity as my personal VAT,” said one businesswoman.

When it was MigHelp’s turn to introduce the basket weaving project, Sarah Nakigudde came nervously onto the stage and in her best Hungarian – a difficult language for foreigners – addressed the packed hall. “I love making baskets that people like,” she said to loud applause.

At the end of the evening, donations had been collected for a number of the ninth district’s good causes, including MigHelp, who received a contribution to their funds.

The money would enable them to buy materials, extend the classes to include both foreign and Hungarian women and continue the work of not only weaving baskets but of weaving a friendly, multi-ethnic community.